What Happens When a Houston Energy Guru Messes With the Power Grid?

superpower-book-review-1250x0-c-defaultRussell Gold, The Wall Street Journal’s pre-eminent energy reporter, has a new book about Houston wind energy pioneer Michael Skelly and his efforts to modernize the power grid. I reviewed Superpower: One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy, on the Texas Monthly website:

Electricity has become commonplace because of billions of dollars invested in expanding power grids for more than a century. But for all that investment, the grid structure hasn’t changed much since my grandfather’s days. Large, centralized power plants generate electricity and send it across transmission lines to cities and towns served by a particular regional grid. That’s great, as far as it goes, but the system remains fragmented. If Texas runs short of power, it can’t simply order extra electricity from, say Kansas, because there’s no interconnection.

For years, monopoly utilities protected this setup. After all, they were guaranteed a steady rate of return by state regulators. Power flowed in only one direction—from generating plants outward. Accepting power directly into the grid from renewable sources like wind turbines and solar panels, they argued, would cause voltage to collapse and trigger blackouts—access to the wind and sun fluctuates too greatly. The only way to steadily keep the lights on was for utilities to control the flow of power from their own plants.

Michael Skelly wasn’t buying it. By 2009, he’d already built a successful wind farm operator, Houston-based Horizon Wind, and had decided to take on a new challenge: integrating wind and solar power into the nation’s grids.

Skelly is the focus of a new book, Superpower: One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy by Wall Street Journal reporter (and Austinite) Russell Gold. As an energy writer in Houston, I encountered Skelly regularly—we sat together on panels, I interviewed him, and he even helped me track down sources for Texas Monthly articles. He’s a captivating guy, and he can be both intense and affable, but the prospect of an entire book about him gave me pause. Outside of Houston and energy-nerd circles, does anyone know Skelly? Is he really book-worthy?

Fortunately, in the capable storytelling hands of Gold, that issue is moot. Superpower is an engaging read. Skelly’s life provides the narrative thread, but the book is really a warning: Our electric grid has failed to keep up with the changes in generation sources and consumer habits. Want more wind and solar power? Great, but how do you get electricity from wind turbines in western Oklahoma to populated areas that actually need the power? Skelly’s plan was to build what Gold describes as a giant extension cord—a massive direct-current power line—that would ship electricity generated by wind farms in the Oklahoma Panhandle to the eastern power grid through a connection in Memphis.

Right away, Gold makes it clear that Skelly is more hard-charging capitalist than crunchy-granola renewables enthusiast: “Skelly wanted to make a profit, because profits would attract new investors and money into renewable energy.”

Skelly formed a new company, Clean Line Energy Partners, raised millions from private investors, and developed a plan that would bring thousands of megawatts—enough energy to power thousands of homes—into the existing grids. The result would be cheaper, cleaner energy. He also hoped to prove that utilities’ fears that wind and solar power would destabilize the grid were unfounded. He took on ignorant politicians (I’m looking at you, Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander), self-serving utilities, short-sighted bureaucrats, and NIMBY-minded landowners, who all have done their parts to ensure our national power grid remains a balkanized anachronism.

Read my full eview on the Texas Monthly website.

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Another example of how fracking has changed everything

mahmood and meSaudi Arabia will now buy natural gas from the United States. When I was in the Kingdom in 2011, the Saudis were talking about developing more of their own natural gas resources. The problem the country faces remains the same: its domestic oil consumption continues to rise, and the more oil it uses at home, the less it has to sell abroad. So the deal to buy U.S. gas makes sense, but eight years ago, the Saudis would never have believed that one day they’d be buying natural gas from us.

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The Oilman Who Loved Sustainable Energy

As we consider how George Mitchell’s legacy will shape this century — in energy, in sustainability, in cosmology, in philanthropy — let’s also take a moment to ponder the impossible, the unlikely, the unorthodox and even the quixotic.

Read my latest in the Houston Chronicle

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The new catalogs are here!

The new catalogs are here! The new catalogs are here! http://ow.ly/Wd9p50ul4ES @TAMUPress #energy #georgepmitchell #fracking

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The Saws of My Father

sawsI have three crosscut saws I never use. One I bought myself soon after I got married because I needed to cut something, and it seemed like a basic tool that I needed to have. The other two came from my father.

He always had a crosscut saw hanging from a peg over his work bench, just as I do now. In fact, my work bench is an imitation of his, right down to the 4x4s I use for the legs and the 2x6s for the top. It’s a design my dad developed over the years, and when we moved, one of the first things he did was build a new one.

My father died eight years ago this week. After I cleaned out his house, I collected all his tools and moved them into my garage. Many had rusted or deteriorated, left unused for too long in the Central Texas humidity during final years of his life. I was saddened by the state of their neglect, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away.

Now, my wife and I are “downsizing,” embracing the latest financial fad of middle-aged empty nesters, and one of my tasks is cleaning out the garage. Tool redundancy would be a logical place to start, yet after several months, it remains an uncompleted chore.

I open a drawer and see my father’s saws. I open another one and see his stainless-steel Black & Decker electric drill, a relic from Eisenhower’s America that probably is worth more as an antique than a tool. But it still works and its housing shines with the memories of all the holes my father and I drilled with it. There’s a soldering gun that hasn’t been used since my dad and I wired my model railroad when I was 11. There are hammers, wrenches, screwdrivers, hacksaws, backsaws and coping saws – a montage of mid-Twentieth century manual labor.

They are more than the touchstone of childhood memories. Tools were a part of who my father was, even after he shed his blue-collar career to become an academic. If he were to walk into my garage today, he would look at these unused, rusted remembrances and ask why I’ve kept them. He had a word for such sentimental retention – “junk.” (Decades ago, my mother boxed up family memorabilia, and my father labeled it “four generations of stuff – some junk.”)

I sort through the tools, moving them in the drawers but not actually moving them closer to the door. More than any of my father’s possessions that I still have, the tools feel as if they harbor his soul. I feel his presence most strongly when I pick up his favorite hammer or pull out the screwdriver that still bears the name of the family electrical business, M.G. Steffy & Sons, which dissolved in 1972.

The tools reflect a lifetime spent working with this hands, whether it was fixing a balky light switch in our home or rebuilding a 2,300-year-old Greek merchant ship half a world away.

To me, they also serve as a reminder of his overwhelming patience. My father never got visibly angry or frustrated. His tools were never thrown in frustration, and he never broke something he was working on because it wasn’t cooperating. If things weren’t going well, he would pour another cup of coffee or light a cigarette and think it through. I search for that patience within myself daily, yet it eludes me.

I spent countless hours watching him work with those tools, then helping him, and then having him watch me. But a generational chain was broken. My ancestors progressed from farmer to stonemason to electrician. They used tools to make a living. I work with my hands as a hobby, a diversion from the never-finished job of tapping out thoughts on a computer keyboard. My own children, exposed only to the occasional birdhouse-building scout project or the mandatory instruction of my “car camp,” have little interest in the excess tools in my garage.

Do I need three crosscut saws? Two hacksaws? Four hammers (three claw, one ball peen)? Three wooden mallets? A wood plane? Monkey wrenches that haven’t turned a pipe fitting in 50 years?

I do. Not in a practical sense, of course, but those old tools remind me of a willingness to take on every project, of a patience to do it well, and of the quiet satisfaction that comes with a board well cut or a screw well turned.

I close the drawers again and move on to the nearby shelf. Old door knobs and radiator hoses from a Honda Pilot? Those can go.

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Wilbur Ross and Rust Belt renaissance

President-elect Donald Trump has picked billionaire investor and turnaround expert Wilbur Ross to serve as commerce secretary, according to the New York Times. It’s an interesting choice. Ross spent years buying companies in long-suffering industries such as steel, textiles and coal.

In the early 2000s, I did a profile of Ross for Bloomberg Markets magazine. There’s no link available, but Ross had just bought the old LTV steel plants in Cleveland out of bankruptcy and restarted them — albeit with far fewer employees and much less management. It’s a tough business, wringing decades of inefficiency out of these Rust Belt manufacturing companies. As I wrote in my Chronicle column in 2005, it often involves breaking promises to workers that companies made decades ago. And while it may save some jobs in the U.S., it doesn’t mean the companies remain U.S.-based. In the case of steel, for example, Ross ultimately sold to foreign owners.

I’ve interviewed Ross dozens of times since the 1980s, when he was known as “The King of Bankruptcy” for his investments in failed companies. In 1990, he was hired by the bondholders of a failing Atlantic City casino, the Trump Taj Mahal. Ross objected to Trump’s proposed debt restructuring, which would have left Trump holding all the equity. After hearing Trump’s proposal, Ross joked: “It’s a little too early for Christmas.” Outraged, Trump demanded that the bondholders fire Ross. They refused and threatened to throw the casino into bankruptcy. Trump agreed to give up half the equity.

Apparently, all is forgiven. Ross’s contrarian views, his extensive international business experience and his background in turning around struggling companies make him an interesting choice to run the Commerce Department. I haven’t been impressed with many of Trump’s Cabinet-level picks. Ross is the most intriguing choice so far.

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About those anti-Trump Protestors…

000d2613-800Dear Mr. President-Elect,

I know you have some time before you take office, and you’re still learning all that this new job will entail. But even in these early days, you have a chance to heal the wounds of the campaign, to act presidential. I am disappointed that you have chosen not to.

Many people are not happy with your election, and they have taken to the streets to protest. This makes me and many others uncomfortable because it seems an affront to the peaceful transition of power. But what makes me more uncomfortable is your response.

Americans have a constitutional right to peaceably assemble, and, so far, most of those assembled have been peaceable. I hope they remain so.

Your response, issued via a tweet, was to complain that they had treated you unfairly. Perhaps, but it doesn’t matter. You are about to become the leader of our government, a government of the people – all the people, including those who protest against you. They are your protestors. You now represent them — indeed, you work for them — just as much as the Ku Klux Klan members who are planning a victory parade for you in North Carolina.

As a candidate, you can divide and win, as president, you cannot.

Reports, mostly on social media, have relayed incidents – fortunately isolated ones – in which people claiming to be your followers have harassed people of color. While these may not represent the feelings of all your supporters, some apparently believe that your election makes hatred, bigotry and threats of violence against minorities acceptable.

As president, you must tell them it doesn’t. You owe the country that. How you respond sets the tone for your presidency and the America it will oversee.

You were elected president, but you were not popularly elected. More people voted for your opponent. That is the way our system works, and it does not delegitimize your presidency. It does, however, underscore the division of our nation, a division that on election night you pledged to heal.

Your tweet in response to the protestors flies in the face of that pledge. America cannot succeed – it cannot be great — if our elected leaders simply pander to one group that feels excluded from society by denigrating or ignoring the concerns of another. You won, in part, because your opponent failed to recognize this.

It may, indeed, seem unfair that many people are so upset by your election that they are openly protesting it. You are not the first president to be treated unfairly. Just ask the man whose hand your shook in the Oval Office this week (or, for that matter, any of his predecessors).

Your tweeted response also included one of your favorite themes: it was the media’s fault. As a creation of the media yourself, you know better. It may be convenient to have a handy scapegoat, but you cannot blame the media, foreign governments, immigrants or any other outsiders for the problems that will occur under your administration. Your party will dominate all the houses of government. It’s been almost a century since any president has had such control. That is a tremendous opportunity, but one that doesn’t allow for excuses. Just as the successes will be yours, so will the failures.

You preside over an America in which an angry majority has reasserted itself, and that is its right. Our nation, however, was founded on the principal that government also protects the rights of the minority and the disenfranchised. That is how our democracy has endured. You are now the line that stands between that ideal and mob rule.

People are protesting not simply because they lost an election, but because you campaigned on the message that they did not matter, that by excluding them, America can be “great again.” That may have been a successful campaign strategy, but it has made your job harder. As president, you must address their concerns. You must recognize the growing diversity of our nation and the strength that’s derived from it. In short, you must be America’s president, not the mouthpiece for the anger of some.

Those days are over. You got the job. Now, you must live up to it.


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